Bill Clegg Recounts Relapse: Excerpt From Memoir Ninety Days

Bill Clegg
Chris Buck for Newsweek

The small literary agency I co-owned and ran for four years is gone, all my clients have found new agents, our employees have scattered to new jobs or left New York, and whatever money I once had has been wiped out, leaving in its place a rising debt of legal, hospital, and rehab bills. The eight-year relationship with my boyfriend, Noah, is over, and the apartment at One Fifth Avenue his grandmother bought him, where we lived for six years, is no longer my home. Hours later. Dave has helped me with my bags up the three flights of stairs to his small writing studio on Charles Street, said a stern goodbye, and gone home to have dinner with his wife and kids.

All at once it hits me: I’m alone. No one besides Dave knows exactly where I am. I could be doing anything. I’ve been an inpatient for weeks, under the thumb of nurses and doctors and counselors the entire time. No more morning gatherings, group meals, and in-bed-by-10 room checks. I’m alone and unaccountable. And then, like a dead ember blown to life, I think about my old dealers, Rico and Happy. I remember how I owe each of them a thousand dollars and wonder—despite all that’s been lost, everyone hurt, despite everything—how I’m going to get two grand to pay these guys off so I can buy more? I start to puzzle through credit cards and PIN codes for cash advances. Suddenly a few thousand dollars seems within reach, and I can feel that old burn, that hibernating want, come awake. I imagine the relief that first hit will deliver and I’m suddenly up off the couch and pacing. No no no, I chant. No f--king way. That craving, once it begins, is almost impossible to reverse. What my addict mind imagines, my addict body chases. It’s like Bruce Banner as he’s turning into the Incredible Hulk. Once his muscles begin to strain against his clothes and his skin goes green, he has no choice but to let the monster spring from him and unleash its inevitable damage.

I’ve just got to get to 90 days.

Several days later, I remember a day two months ago, leaving the bank with $3,000 stuffed in my jacket, calling my dealer from the street and telling him to meet me at my room at the Gansevoort Hotel. I remember him saying he was only a block away and how my heart raced as I hailed a cab to get there before he did, how his van was pulling up to the hotel just as my cab was, and how I hopped from one vehicle right into the other. From call to cab to van and back to room took less than five minutes, some kind of record, and in the middle of the day, no less. Remembering the return to the hotel room, the wealth of drugs, the remaining cash in hand, and the night ahead starts my heart racing. I think again of the $2,000 in my account now. The two that will soon be eight. Following the thousand-dollar-a-day logic of those nights at the Gansevoort, three months’ rent becomes eight nights high.

Out the door, down the elevator, and onto Seventh Avenue, where I quickly duck into a bodega and head to the cash machine. I have less than $200 in my checking account, but I also have three credit cards with separate limits for cash advances. I dimly remember being asked to set a PIN code for at least one. I am practically dancing as I scour my wallet for credit cards. I try one and use the PIN for my regular cash card and it doesn’t work. I try another and get the same result. I try the third, and again no luck. So I go back to the first and play around with a few combinations of the PIN code for my cash card. I replace the last two numbers with zeros and BINGO!!!—it works. I advance $400 and am electric with the anticipation of getting high. It’s been so long. I rush out onto Seventh Avenue and a cab immediately pulls up. I step in and realize that at some point, either on the terrace or just after, I have left the world I had been living in and entered another. Or rather reentered the one that had been waiting.

I’m at the door. The same door I’ve stood at dozens and dozens of times. Looking at the same buzzer and hoping the same hope: that Mark is home and that Mark has drugs. Whatever hesitation struggled against desire on the terrace less than an hour before is now gone. I am giddy and antsy and shuffling before the door as if something wonderful is waiting on the other side. Nothing of the past months, nothing of the ruin and upset figures into this moment. Or if it does, it’s a dim unpleasantness that, along with every other worry, is being escaped. The world and its woe exist on this side of the door, where I am now; the place to hide from it all is on the other, where I’m going. I press the button and in seconds hear Mark’s voice, metallic and loud through the intercom. Who is it? he squawks, and before I say my name the door is buzzing open.

It’s early afternoon, two days after showing up at Mark’s apartment, when I return home. Benny hasn’t been fed for almost three days, and when I open the door she is meowing desperately. I immediately open a fresh can of cat food, put water in her bone-dry dish, and try to pet her, but she bites at my hands and skitters away. I plug in my cell phone, which is dead and I know will be full of messages—from my friends and sponsors. I’m starving and I take one of the quiches from the refrigerator and eat the entire thing. I’ve purchased Tylenol PM from the bodega downstairs and take a handful to cushion the crash. I wish I had vodka or beer or some kind of alcohol, but even after 48 hours of crack and vodka at Mark’s the idea of bringing booze into this apartment seems out of bounds. So the Tylenol PM will have to do. Once the phone is charged I listen to the messages: one more worried than the next including one from Polly.

Bill Clegg Memoir ‘Ninety Days’ by Bill Clegg, $24.99, Little, Brown

Polly is a few years younger than I am, and lives with her twin sister, Heather, who is the bartender at an Irish tavern in the West Village that serves burgers and steaks and chicken pot pies. Heather and Polly are coke addicts. Polly is trying to get sober, Heather is not. Polly has six or seven days clean. I met her at my first meeting. When I raised my hand that day and said I had 60 days, Polly waved to me from across the room and smiled while everyone else clapped.

Polly’s voicemail message is short and sweet: Hey, I didn’t see you in the meeting yesterday or today. What’s up? Call me. I do. She picks up on the first ring and says in a playful, school-teacher tone, Billy boy, did you relapse? I mumble in response some kind of yes. She laughs. She actually laughs, and says, Get to a meeting, don’t sit on the pity pot, just get to a meeting. Don’t make a big deal out of it, just get back on the beam. And call your sponsor. I listen to Polly like I’m listening to someone telling me how to defuse a bomb strapped to my ankle. OK, OK, I say and agree to call her later that night.

As the Tylenol PM begins to kick in, I start thinking about my sponsor’s patronizing phrases, his dismissive accusations of self-pity, and how he never just listens to what I’m feeling, what I’m going through. If not him, then who? He’s my sponsor, isn’t he? I think about going back to Mark’s, but I know there won’t be any more drugs there until evening when he can call Happy or Rico. Mark agreed not to tell Happy that I was in the bedroom when he came with the drugs two nights ago, because of the money I owe him. I wonder if Mark kept his word or instead tipped him off that I’m back in town. Worry about Happy mingles with my rising resentment toward my sponsor Jack, and in a burst of frustration I pick up the lamp next to my bed and throw it against a wall. The light bulb shatters but the small wooden base remains intact. Next to the wall where I’ve thrown the lamp I see a meeting book. Reluctantly, I pick it up to see if there is a mid-afternoon meeting nearby. I can’t bear to call anyone else back and have no idea what I will say when I eventually do. I flip through the meeting book and see one starting in 10 minutes a few blocks away at the gay-and-lesbian center. I go.

I call Polly from the street and she picks up right away. Did you go to a meeting and say that you’ve relapsed? she snaps without salutation and I lie and say yes. Which one? she asks doubtfully and I tell her. Did you call your sponsor? I lie again and say yes. So what are you going to do now? she asks, and the truth is I have no idea. I tell her so and she says, Well, let’s talk. I don’t remember everything we talked about that night, but I do remember her telling me a story of getting drunk on a flight to Dallas, where, once she landed, she blew off the rehearsal dinner for a wedding she was supposed to be a bridesmaid in to go looking for an ex-boyfriend. She hit a bar on the way and ended up walking in traffic on a freeway outside the city and getting arrested. I tell her how I was—just three months earlier—thrown off a flight to Berlin because I was convinced the plane was crawling with DEA agents and said something bizarre to the flight attendant. We talk and trade war stories, and I walk a loop. Polly keeps me on the phone a long time, and I remember several times thinking that the dealers will be back in business soon and maybe I should get off the phone and go over to Mark’s. But I stay on the phone, walk in circles until I’m exhausted, and, finally, go home.

It’s after one o’clock when I wake up the next day. I make coffee, eat cereal, shower, dress, and get out the door to make the two o’clock. C’mere, Crackhead, Polly says and pats the seat next to her. The meeting begins. There are two speakers—one with just over a year sober and the other with decades—who talk about early sobriety and the first 90 days. Of all days I should be listening, but I can’t stop thinking about the $400 cash advance I put on my credit card to buy drugs. I start thinking about how much money I have left on that card and the others. I tally up 10 grand or so and begin to imagine how I could put together a war chest of drugs for one last bender and then make use of the 17th-floor balcony off my apartment. No pills this time, no chance of failing again. The speakers go on speaking, a hat gets passed and fills up with dollars, people raise their hands and announce their day counts—24, 88, 30. People clap. Polly raises her hand and says nine or 10 or something in that range. More clapping. She pinches my leg, I raise my hand. One day, I say, and the place explodes.